From the Archives: Secrets of Edges

Shaving with a straight razor is an excellent education for a swordsman. You learn to be decisive, as the blade is so sharp that if you pause while in contact with the skin, you can bleed. And you learn your limits as well, because if you are tired, grumpy, or lazy, you will bleed. You learn to take time to do things right, as a well-prepared shave is pure satisfaction. You also learn self-sufficiency, because you have to put your own edge on the blade, and maintain it. Which is today’s lesson on fencing: a comparison of edges.

Antique Razor

In my houseful of sharp objects, one stands out…my antique straight razor. It’s stupidly sharp. I restored it’s edge myself. When I got it it could barely cut cheese, never mind my very tough facial hair. I hit the web for a few weeks, searching and reading everything I could find about sharpening these things, and then set to. Four different sets of sharpening stones and a lot of polishing and buffing, and repeating, before I got a shave-able edge. And another six months of shaving, honing and stropping before it really got sharp.

Modern Cheap Razor

I have another razor, a modern one. A cheap modern one. I’ve tried to shave with it a few times, and even with all the work I’ve never been able to get a tolerable shave out of it. One day, when I was doing some jewelry work and playing with my new loupe, I got a sudden hit of inspiration. I grabbed the bad razor and looked at the edge under the loupe. And then I compared it to the edge on my good razor. The differences were eye-opening. A quick review of all the other blades in the house showed similar differences.

This is my very favourite knife, Vera

I’ll take a moment to introduce Vera, here. Vera is a Hanwei replica of the famous Bell Bowie knife, and is a very fine example of of a modern production knife. She’s also my idea of the perfect fighting blade…nice, big, and seriously sharp. Test cutting with her on a hanging side of fresh raw pork was very enlightening. She easily zipped through flesh and rib bone alike. Not surprisingly, she out-performed many of the swords we were using. She’s also a great camp knife, and handy around the kitchen…everything a knife should be.

So, we have three blades to compare. A poor quality modern blade, a good quality modern blade, and an excellent quality antique blade. The blades serve different purposes, which is important to keep in mind, but we can still learn a lot.

All images can be clicked on for the full size version.

Modern Cheap Razor

Edge of Modern Cheap Razor

Let’s start with the bottom of the line. This razor is terrible, and a close look at the blade will reveal why. The geometry isn’t too bad, and should be serviceable enough, but it isn’t because the steel is crap. I wondered why it was so resistant to honing and buffing, and if you zoom in on the edge you can see why. If you look very closely, you will see tiny flares of light.

View of Modern Razor Through Loupe

It’s not too apparent in the photo, but in person you can clearly see that these are caused by inclusions, little bits of things that shouldn’t be in the steel. It’s very “dirty” steel, full of inclusions and pockets, which show up in the many short scattered lines on the face of the blade, and the poorly defined transition to the edge proper.

Under higher magnification (too high for me to take a picture of at home) you can actually see tiny black pockets of slag. Ick. The flares are also more apparent when viewed through the loupe.

Antique Razor

Edge of Antique Razor

The first thing about the antique razor is the brilliant mirror shine it gives. The photo here doesn’t quite give it justice, but I had to include it anyway. Shiiiiny…pretty. Just an overall slicker and smooth appearance. The geometry of this blade is superb for shaving…you can hardly notice the transition to the edge at all. It’s apparent in person, but not much more. The blade looks like a piece of paper, only thinner.

Close-up of Edge of Antique Razor

 

View of Antique Razor Through Loupe

Even though the Modern and Antique blades have gone through the same sharpening, honing, buffing, and stropping process, you can see huge differences. The antique blade is cleaner, there are smoother transitions, and the edge itself is only visible as a tiny glowing line in the photos. It’s a treat to shave with, as well!

 Modern Bowie Knife

Edge of Modern Knife

This blade is pretty much the definition of what we want from a modern blade. Straight, clean, rigid geometry. Consistent and uniform metal content, structure, and appearance.

Edge of Modern Knife Viewed Through Loupe

Notice how on both views the edge is clearly and sharply defined? If you look at the edge very closely, you can see the striations that make up the cherished modern “micro-serrated” edge. This is a sharp blade. I’ve done a little honing and buffing on it, but mostly it’s exactly as it shipped from the factory. I can’t quite shave with it, but I bet I could if I bothered to put a little work into the edge. This isn’t even close to the sharpness of some of the modern blades, though.

And you will note that even compared to the one small sample, it really lacks the art of the antique blade, the organic smoothness. If you get the chance to examine antique sword blades compared to modern sword blades, this comparison is even more dramatic. These days, we admire a uniform consistent process more than a single, handcrafted process. We place a lot of value on a process that has a lot of money and time put into it, that can produce consistent high-quality and proven results. This really shows in the bowie.

But when we examine the historical blade, we can see design choices that individual makers made, that suit the particular blade. They made choices in blade geometry that would be unthinkable today…like the dramatic thinness of some of the edges. That would be unthinkable in a modern production blade. You can’t get a repeatable edge like that (yet.) Which is why modern sword blades really lack in one important feature compared to the antiques…handling. I’ve yet to see a modern sword handle like an antique. Antiques are more like a joyful feather than the angled crowbars of modern swords. They may cut alike, but something is missing. Maybe by comparing these three blades, you can come to your own conclusions as to why.

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